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unpublished fiction by by Harry Willson
CHANGING THE RULES: Another Look at Values
Posted Excerpts:   The Bridge   Fighting

Synopsis:  CHANGING THE RULES is a collection of stories which deal with "value clarification," not in a doctrinaire fashion, but in an open-ended manner. The stories tell what it was like to be a boy during World War II on the "home front." The treatment suggests that even though times have changed a great deal, the deeper questions haven't changed much, and that perhaps they do need serious consideration in our time, and not as political slogans merely. The stories are "life-experience," told from the point of view of a twelve-year-old named Leon. The same group of characters appears throughout [he calls them "the gang," long before that word had such ominous overtones]. Besides The War there is also puberty, work, school, peer pressure, church, nature and growing self-awareness -- all these things are part of the problem any 12-year-old has to solve, one way or another. The ethical questions are not always perfectly resolved, but are left open and ready for additional thought and discussion. Here are two sample stories:

THE BRIDGE

Leon rode Old Knee-Action through the tiny business section of his hometown, which everyone called Down Town. He proceeded down Broad Street toward the creek. The creek emptied into The River, not far away, and that explained why there was a village in this place, long before any white people arrived. The highway to the city up river, which everyone called Up Town, crossed the creek on a bright silver-painted iron bridge, which was called simply, The Bridge.

Leon had on nothing but his swimming trunks. He often rode his bicycle barefoot. He rode out onto The Bridge halfway and stopped and got off. He leaned the bicycle against the railing and turned back to the nearest hollow iron girder that was part of the superstructure of The Bridge. For once, he was glad he was little -- usually he wished he was bigger than he was.

Little Leon squeezed himself between the crisscross iron slats of the girder. Slowly he scrooched down inside. He grasped the slats and let himself down slowly and carefully. At the bottom he twisted his body and untangled first one arm and one leg and then the other arm and at last the other leg. He wormed his way out of the girder onto the top of the concrete pier, which held up The Bridge. Kids did this every day, but this was Leon's first time.

He sat perched on the top of the pier with some other boys. They looked like little hairless monkeys, with arms wrapped across the chest and partway up the back. It was chilly in the shade, and that iron was cold. The roar of cars and trucks on The Bridge reverberated in his ears.

He looked down. The current was very swift. There was a deep water hole beside the pier. Every once in a while a kid jumped, with a scream, and fell down, down, into the rushing water. The current was too swift for diving -- the rushing water could smash a body up against the pier.

Leon sat there a long time, hugging himself. The water was a blur. People in the water and on the stones beside the water were ignoring Leon. Climbing back up inside that girder would be very hard, if not impossible. The only way off that place was through the air and into that water. Kids were screaming at each other upstream, but it was in fun.

Leon looked beyond the rushing water, to the beach of rounded creek-bottom stones. Behind the stone beach were thick clumps of young willow trees -- The Bushes. Kids who didn't come in their bathing suits, older kids mostly, changed clothes in The Bushes. Leon had done it a couple of times, looking around and then sliding his shorts down and stepping quickly into his bathing suit, with fear, or maybe a secret hope, that he'd get an eyeful, or provide one. But nothing ever came of it. He never saw anything, and he certainly didn't amount to anything anyone would get much fun out of seeing. The gang told stories, but Leon had decided he didn't believe them.

He looked at the underside of The Bridge. Writing had been painted on the iron undergirders, mostly magic words. Leon had learned some very important vocabulary here, looking up from the stone beach over there across the water. He didn't understand why they were magic, and he couldn't learn them any other way. He knew, because he had tried. His folks were no help, and neither was the dictionary. Rocky had taught him some things.

Leon brought his attention back to the rushing water. He loved it, so clear and clean. The creek bottom was covered with those same rounded stones one found everywhere, especially in the garden. At Big Creek, upstream from The Bridge, on the north side of town, the current was not as swift as here next to the pier where Leon sat and remembered.

Even after he learned to swim, all in one afternoon, he still preferred playing around under water for as long as he could hold his breath. He used to toss a special shiny jagged piece of agate and then dive and crawl around on the bottom, with his eyes open, looking at all the stones, until he found the special one. He could stay down longer than a whole minute.

He looked long into the deep part of the water rushing by below him. He was glad he had figured out that if you can swim, deep didn't matter. Leon grinned at his memory of learning how to swim. Suddenly he leaped off the pier, like a hop-toad. He didn't plan it, really. He was just suddenly in the air. He fell a long way, it seemed to him, the farthest he had ever fallen, feet first, hands and arms out to the side, hair flying behind him. He wished he'd taken a bigger breath of air first.

He hit the water with what seemed to him a terrific splash, near the upstream end of the pier. He was under water a long time, but he was used to that. His feet gently touched stones at the bottom of the plunge. He came up at the other end of the pier. He kicked and cranked his arms, swimming, hard and a little desperately, heading for the beach of stones. In four strokes he was out of the strong current. He walked up on to dry stones, feeling very big, very old and very brave. He was surprised that no one noticed. But he hadn't done anything very special. Kids jumped off The Bridge all the time. He just joined them.

Leon walked out onto The Bridge to retrieve his bicycle. He felt very proud of himself, and a little sorry that there was no one to share his achievement. He rode off The Bridge and back up Broad Street.

He came to a huge old maple tree between the street and the sidewalk. He stopped. The tree had undergone surgery some years ago. He touched the cement patch and the thick rounded ridge of bark that was beginning to heal all around the patch.

He remembered talk of a car wreck, when he was little. This was now an old, old tree. It was full grown then, big enough to stop a car speeding off The Bridge and into town in the middle of the night and kill two people. Leon remembered the talk, and the perplexity in the family. How'd the car get out of control? Why so fast? Why so late at night? Where had they been? Were they drinking? He remembered little suspicious disapproving questions.

Leon's questions at that time were deeper, and bigger. He was very little. What is "dead"? This was his first encounter with it. People die, like birds and dogs and cows and flowers. Why do they? There was no answer to that, that made any sense. They just do, is all. Who will take care of their little girl, who was home safe in bed while they were out driving around getting killed? Her aunt and uncle. Oh.

Leon walked slowly on, pushing his bicycle and thinking. There is something, he didn't know what -- it has to do with dying. He tried to figure it out. If we didn't die, it wouldn't matter. Nothing would matter. Dying is what makes some things, like swimming and jumping off of bridges, exciting and dangerous and important. He got on his bicycle and rode slowly on up the street. But maybe -- because we do die -- maybe that means it really doesn't matter, after all. A hundred million years from now, it won't matter. Whatever "it" is. Our little hurts and troubles and achievements. Leon felt a little lost.

* * *

FIGHTING

The back end of the vacant lot next to Leon's home contained several truckloads of huge used timbers. They were eight-by- eights, and some were as long as sixteen feet. The gang Leon ran around with climbed on them. Then they began moving them around, and finally they built a two-room "cabin." It required a great deal of yelling back and forth, plenty of cussing, and incredible splinters in one hand or another, but they did it.

No one was badly hurt, although it was a wonder. The boys simply piled the timbers up where they wanted them and let their own weight hold them in place. The timbers were heavy enough to break bones, if they had fallen from the heights to which the boys lifted them, straining and grunting.

The "cabin" was much less fun to play with than it had been to build. The constructive stage was over, and destructive forces were going into motion. The gang was fooling around, "hanging around," they called it, outside the cabin. The group seemed bent on having a fist fight. Rocky can lick Bill. Bill can lick Gordie.

Strange word. Lick. "Who can you lick?" Not with your tongue, Stupid. With your fists. It was a word used also to mean spankings from parents. "You'll get a licking...!" "I got licked good...!"

Leon was at the bottom of the pecking order in the gang. He was the youngest by a full year and the littlest. He didn't take part in the fights -- he just stayed in last place. The gang teased him, and they all assumed he was last because he was afraid of each of them. But it wasn't that, really. He was more afraid of his father's prohibition against fighting.

This time the group persisted. Bill was taunting. "Leon probably can't lick anyone. Think you can?" Leon said he didn't know.

"Well, let's find out," Rocky said.

Leon felt that the whole group had turned on him. He did not want to fight, and said so. "No, I don't want to."

"Whattsamatter? Scared?" Miller shook his head at Leon. He always did more than his share of the teasing.

Leon had in mind his father's instructions about fighting. "Just walk away. You can take a little teasing. No fighting. I catch you fighting and you'll get licked good. And don't forget it. I mean it."

"C'mon! Who you want to try and lick?"

"Nobody. I'm not mad at anybody. And I don't want to fight."

Leon didn't think he could lick Rocky because he was more than two years older and a foot taller. He probably couldn't lick Gordie because he liked him too much. He really didn't want to fight any of them. But that didn't matter. The gang insisted on a fight.

"Go ahead. Fight Miller."

Leon looked around at the group. Suddenly Miller jumped down off a timber and took a poke at Leon, hitting him on the shoulder, hard. Leon smiled weakly. "I don't want to fight," he said. Miller swing again with all his strength and hit Leon very hard on the right cheek. The next thing happened very quickly, but Leon felt it in slow motion.

He heard a click inside his head. Something happened in his stomach, too -- a gushing feeling. He heard the blood pounding in his ears. His eyes blurred more than usual. He yelled, but the voice came from far, far away, as if covered by a thousand blankets.

Leon leaped on Miller, wrapping his legs around him. Miller toppled over, startled. Leon grabbed his hair in one hand and his chin in the other and began beating Miller's head on one of the timbers on the ground. Miller was yelling, but his voice also was very far away. As Leon continued pounding the timber with Miller's head, the voice faded altogether. Leon heard noises like grunts each time he struck the timber with the other boy's head.

"Unnh! Unnh!" Leon wasn't sure who was grunting. He kept it up for a long time, with all his strength. He intended to keep it up forever.

The other boys jumped on him and dragged him off Miller. They had to pry his fingers loose from the hair one by one. "O.K.! Take it easy! You licked him!"

Leon knelt on the ground and looked up at them, panting for air, almost sobbing, spit dripping from the corner of his mouth. "I'll kill him," he gasped.

"No, no. It's all over. You licked him quick. But you don't fight fair."

They started arguing among themselves. "Banging his head on that board wasn't fair!"

"Miller wanted to box, but Leon wanted to wrestle!"

"Leon never threw a single punch!"

"But Miller never knew what hit him!" They all laughed.

Miller was lying on the ground, his face pale. He moaned, "Yeah, Leon wasn't fair."

Leon was still gasping and not seeing clearly. His voice was tight and squeaky. "Don't tell me about fair. I didn't want to fight. I still don't want to. Fighting is not a game, with rules. Fighting is to win. To kill. Like the war. I'll kill somebody. Don't get me started." And then he was crying. He punched himself on the leg, and let the tears out.

Bill said the word, "Sissy," but Gordie said, "No, he's really mad. And not just at Miller."

Leon felt afraid. He feared his own feelings. All that anger, that rage, that absolute fury. He was afraid of what it might do, and surprised that there was so much of it so suddenly available, and that it was so strong, so unbeatable.

Gordie muttered, "He's a little crazy. We better leave him alone. You all right?" The question was for Miller.

"Yeah," Miller gasped. "Let's go." He stood up shakily and they started walking toward Gordie's place and the quoit pits.

Leon sat alone on the ground beside the cabin. How can there be rules for fighting? Fighting isn't a game! He watched the other boys pitching quoits back and forth. He did not join them. Maybe Dad's right, that the best rule for fighting is, "No fighting." But sometimes they won't allow it. He sat on the ground a long time and then went to his house and up to his room alone.

* * *
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© 1998, Harry Willson
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